Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2014 15:16 | By Agence France-Presse

Marfa: cultural oasis in Texas desert

Nestled in the Texas high desert about an hour from the Mexican border, Marfa appears, at first glance, to be hidden from the outside world.

Marfa: cultural oasis in Texas desert

The Prada Marfa sculpture by artists Elmgreen and Dragset is pictured near Valentine Texas on March 3, 2014 - by Veronique Dupont

With a population of only 1,900, the city that began life as a railroad stop feels like a backwater, with fading buildings, modest homes and dormant streets.

Yet the sleepy appearance is misleading. For thousands of visitors who flock to the town each year from around the world, Marfa is a cultural paradise, an El Dorado for art lovers.

A visitor might struggle to locate a pharmacy or a supermarket, but will be able to enjoy bookstores, galleries, a theater, a radio station, two annual film festivals and numerous art deco treasures.

Every weekend, the crowds descend on a town the local tourist board markets as: "Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it."

"It's like the tide," joked Valerie Arber, an artist who has lived in the town for 16 years.

The stream of visitors regularly includes luminaries from the creative world, such as the director of the Tate Gallery, Nicholas Serota, actress Sissy Spacek, singer Beyonce or edgy bands such as The XX.

"Marfa is a contemporary utopia, a place for thought and art in a landscape of wild beauty," said Fabien Giraud, a French artist who works in the Fieldwork Marfa project.

Founded in the late 19th century, Marfa developed into a thriving community that included ranches and a military base.

A devastating drought decimated livestock, however, and the end of World War II saw the military base close, triggering a decline in Marfa's fortunes.

The town received a fleeting moment in the Hollywood spotlight when it was used as the location for the 1955 James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor classic "Giant," but it would be nearly another two decades before Marfa's revival would begin in earnest.

- Renaissance in the desert -

Marfa's renaissance can be traced back to 1972, when Donald Judd, one of the most important minimalist artists of the 20th Century, arrived in the town in 1972.

Tired of the frenetic pace of life in New York, and in love with the desert landscape, Judd purchased a number of former military and commercial buildings in Marfa to house his giant sculptures.

He moved his family and his studio to the town, and with support from the Dia Art Foundation in New York, set up the Chinati Foundation, dedicated to the creation of a permanent exhibit of his huge works and those of fellow artists such as Dan Flavin or John Chamberlain.

Since Judd's death in 1994, the collection has grown, helping Marfa establish itself as a hub of contemporary art.

"Judd was sure of the quality of his own work. He knew people would come," said Chinati Foundation associate director Rob Weiner.

Other organizations have also contributed to Marfa's booming reputation as an artistic center.

The Lannan Foundation sponsors four- to six-week residencies in the town for writers, poets and essayists.

The Ballroom Marfa center for art, music and cinema opened in 2003.

"We loved the idea of a creative space where people converge from all over the world," said co-founder Fairfax Dorn. "We liked the idea of a new frontier."

One of Ballroom's most notable projects has been the Prada Marfa installation, a replica reproduction of one of the Italian luxury chain's boutiques, which stands alone in an isolated stretch of highway 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside El Paso.

- Tacos & Tate director -

Lawyer and philanthropist Tim Crowley helped convert a former livestock feed store into the Crowley Theater, which features a 170-seat auditorium available for use by groups and schools, often at no cost.

"In London, you could never see Nick Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery. Here, you're having tacos with him," said Crowley. "It's a small community."

Crowley said one of the side effects of having such a sophisticated audience is that "when you do a bad show, people don't try to be polite."

"They say 'It was awful!," he said.

Not all of the 18,000 annual visitors to Marfa are interested in art.

"Some of them talk about the 'Chianti' foundation," laughed Arber, the artist.

Ricky Black, a cowboy by trade, admitted simply: "I went a lot to the Chinati openings because they were serving free beer."

Nevertheless, Black welcomes the town's artistic community. "They're good people, very polite," he said.

In recent years, the gentrification of Marfa has seen the addition of a gym, a yoga studio, gourmet restaurants, concept stores and boutique hotels.

Judd's daughter Rainer said her father would have approved of Marfa's evolution.

"There are still as many pickup trucks as before, it's the same person at the bank or at the post office," she said.

"He would have supported Ballroom Marfa and Lannan and the bookstore. He'd like that you can eat out and he might even get a latte."

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